(Dis)Arming the Disciples (by Drew Strait)

So many want to appeal to Luke 22 to show Jesus was not against guns, but Drew Strait subjects that counter-appeal to an examination:

(Dis)Arming the Disciples? Jesus’ View on Sword Control in Luke 22

The tragic events in Newtown have left our nation riddled with grief, and the use of semi-automatic weapons in this most recent mass killing has once again brought the issue of gun control to national prominence. Within the church, too, this horrific tragedy has prompted serious soul searching. What should the church’s response be to the incessant violence carried out by individuals armed with guns? While mourning the loss of innocent children, I’ve found myself joining other Christians who are mourning the church’s assimilation to America’s gun empire. How have things come to this? Isn’t the church supposed to look “different” than the violent kingdoms of this world? Is it true that the church represents a stumbling block toward better gun control in our nation?

If recent debates about gun control are any indication, it seems that the church is divided into two camps: those who want to proliferate guns as a strategy for confronting violent behavior in our nation and those who want to melt America’s guns into plowshares. As a proponent of the latter, I’ve been surprised by Christian gun owners who are using the disciples’ possession of swords in Luke 22 to argue that Jesus encouraged the disciples to arm themselves.  So the argument runs: Jesus commanded the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords; therefore, Jesus encouraged his followers to bear swords for personal protection. Put another way, since Jesus told Peter to put his sword away after lopping off the ear of the high priest’s servant—but didn’t ask Peter to “discard” the sword—therefore Jesus supports the right to bear swords (i.e., guns).” To that end, I’d like to revisit Luke chapter 22 in its first-century context.  

To begin, it is critical to recognize that the disciples’ wielding of swords fits the contours of the first century Jewish story.  Unlike our situation in America, Israel was living under the hegemony of Roman power, with its burdensome system of taxation and unprecedented military might. Jews responded to Rome’s occupation of Israel in different ways. Some created strict ritual laws to separate themselves from the pollution of Rome’s presence; others collaborated with Rome and earned prestigious positions of power. Some withdrew to the desert to start Israel over because, in their mind, apostate Jews and the Roman army had defiled Jerusalem; others resisted Rome with banditry and organized terrorist tactics through kidnappings and spontaneous stabbings with concealed daggers. Still others created the concept of a “fourth philosophy,” which urged Jews to affirm that Yahweh is King rather than Caesar (Jos. Ant.18.23-24; Acts 5:36-37). The Israel that Jesus was born into was hardly the Kingdom society his ancestors longed for. The presence of Rome was a daily reminder that the voice of the prophets had yet to be fulfilled.

Despite these different strategies for negotiating Roman power, one thing was clear: for the Kingdom of God to arrive, Rome had to go. And for many, that meant violence initiated by Yahweh and/or the people of God themselves. Many of Jesus’ peers, in fact, dreamed of a day when Yahweh would overthrow Rome much like he did the ancient Egyptians in the Book of Exodus.  They longed for Yahweh to initiate a second exodus even greater than the first, a climactic intervention that would finally—at last!—inaugurate the Kingdom of God and restore Israel to political independence under the reign of Yahweh alone. But Israel was growing impatient: talk of a violent revolution was brewing among the disenchanted.

It is here, under Israel’s growing anti-Roman sentiment, that Jesus’ insistence on enemy love takes center stage. Rather than add fuel to the revolutionary fire, Jesus resisted Rome through what N. T. Wright calls a “doubly revolutionary technique” of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and taking up our crosses. For Jesus, the evil of Rome would be defeated not through personal armament but through a revolution of God’s love displayed on a Roman cross. That Jesus was aware of Israel’s building conflict with Rome is evident when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and prophetically warns Israel of its coming destruction:

“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God’” (Luke 19:41-44).

Instead of threaten Rome with the wrath of God, Jesus weeps. He weeps because he recognizes that Israel has overlooked the things that make for peace. As George Caird once memorably said, “The nation [of Israel] must choose between the way of Jesus and all other possible alternatives, and on its choice depended its hope for a national future.”[1] For Jesus, the hope of Israel’s future was inextricably bound up with the way of peace: the way of peace heralded by Zechariah (Luke 1:79); the way of peacemaking blessed by Matthew’s beatitudes (Matt 5:9); the way of servanthood in contrast to the gentile kings (Caesar!) who lord their power over others (Luke 22:25-26); and, not least, the way of the cruciform God who took on the form of Isaiah’s suffering servant and was obedient even to the point of death. Revolutionary violence against Rome had no place in Jesus’ vision for God’s coming Kingdom. And those who chose not to follow Jesus out of the dangerous narrative of revolutionary violence ended up surrounded by the Roman legions and, ultimately, destroyed, along with the Temple in AD 70.

With this background in mind, Jesus’ words and actions in Luke 22 are brought into dramatic relief. Despite Jesus’ many attempts to shape the disciples’ minds into the peaceable Kingdom, their confusion over the aims of Jesus becomes clear at the Lord’s Supper. After making a “new covenant” with the disciples by reinterpreting the passover meal around his own sacrificial death, Jesus warns them that the hospitality they have experienced thus far is going to change to hostility after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s betrayal sets the stage for the coming drama. To prepare the disciples for the intensity of what is about to come, Jesus uses exaggerated and over-the-top language called hyperbole. And this is where the talk of swords comes into play.

Jesus first recalls the hospitality the disciples experienced during their missionary travels: “’When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing’” (Luke 22:35). Then comes Jesus’ use of hyperbole to signify coming hostility: “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). That Jesus is using exaggerated language is indicated by his command to sell one’s cloak and buy a sword. To remove your cloak in the first century meant to walk around in your underwear. Imagine that: Jesus’ disciples walking around half naked while wielding a sword! But what is more telling is that two verses later the disciples reveal that they are, in fact, packing heat: “Look, there are two swords here!” (Luke 22:38). There is a long tradition of translating Jesus’ response as, “it is enough.” However, how could a few disciples wielding two swords take on the devil and Rome’s possession of Jerusalem? Their revolutionary talk is foolish! To the contrary, Joseph Fitzmyer, followed by others, argues that Jesus’ response “it is enough” (ikanon estin) is actually an idiom that means: “that’s enough!” Rather than encourage the disciples to arm themselves, Jesus is disarming the disciples’ violent mentality with the sense of “enough of that nonsense!”

But the disciples still don’t get it. When the crisis actually arrives in Gethsemane and Jesus is arrested, one of the disciples wields his hidden sword and strikes the servant of the high priest. Jesus immediately responds, “Enough of this!” (eate eos toutou).  True to his teaching on enemy love, Jesus proceeds to heal the servant of the high priest, which indicates Jesus’ vision for bringing new creation to this world, not the destructive power of violence. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest provides an even more telling response by Jesus: “Put your sword away! Those who take up the sword will die by the sword!” (Matt 26:52). Jesus is disarming the disciples’ violent mentality, showing them that God’s kingdom is drawing near through the way of the cross.

One final point needs to be made here: to my knowledge we do not have a single shroud of evidence that early Jesus followers carried swords with them as they expanded the church to the ends of the earth.  What we do know is that they imitated Jesus’ life and teaching by taking up their crosses (Acts 7;  Pliny, Ep. Tra. 10.97). At the beginning of Luke’s second volume, the disciples ask Jesus one final question before Jesus ascends into heaven: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The passage is telling—the disciples are still waiting for Jesus to overthrow Rome. Jesus quickly corrects the disciples and commissions them not to violent resistance in an apocalyptic scenario but rather to missional witness empowered by the Holy Spirit in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And that, friends, is the work of the church. Our vehicle for bringing God’s kingdom to earth is not the sword—or the gun—but our witness to Jesus’ resurrection, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

When Luke 22 is read in its first century context we get a profound picture of the world’s Savior disarming his followers in anticipation of his triumph over evil on the cross. What might this mean for the church today? Aside from conversations that need to happen in congress, I am wondering how we as the church can lead the charge in disarming our nation’s surplus guns and propensity toward violence (both here and abroad)?  Jesus had to disarm the violent mentality of his generation—what would it look like for us to disarm ours? It is time for pastors to say “enough of this!” And maybe for some this means using our creativity to make a safe space for Christians to melt their excess guns into plowshares. Whatever the solution is, may our pastoral leadership help to “guide our [nation's] feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).

 


            [1] (George Caird, “Jesus And The Jewish Nation” The Ethel M. Wood Lecture, University of London, March 9, 1965. [London: Athlone, 1965], 16, 22).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Paul W

    Being able to recognize “the things that make for peace” is key in all of this isn’t it?

  • Jim

    Excellent. However, I would love to see a discussion that turns down the characterizations of gun owners and addresses the question of what a Christian’s relationship to the Constitution ought to be. i.e. rather than talk about strategies drawn at the extremes (proliferation of guns vs. melting them down), I would like to see a discussion of how Christians ought to understand and regard the 2nd Amendment.

    When I have tried to have this kind of conversation I often get a “who cares about that?” response in favor of a full embrace of Kingdom ethics. And I understand that…

    However, as I recall, MLK Jr. was often applauded for his ability to argue, as folks used to put it back then, with a Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. I don’t remember anyone back then saying with regard to the Constitution: “Who cares about that?”

    I ask, not because I am a gun advocate (I’m not), but because most people with whom I have conversations about this topic are very interested in the Constitution and not particularly interested in arming themselves to the teeth. Likewise, they recognize that apart from the voluntary surrender of their arms, the 14th Amendment protects their property from seizure.

    Does the Constitution have any place in our discussion and embrace of the Kingdom?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    I think Jim’s questions are worth persuing…what is the Christian’s relationship to the Constitution? With regard to the 2nd amendment, is this where the church’s sermon (Matthew 5-7) trumps the Bill of Rights?

  • Jim

    @John: I think it does. However, an important question to consider is what we do about it. e.g. I might be able to persuade folks in my congregation of that..that given the teachings of Jesus we ought to lay down our arms (if we have any) and certainly ought to consider the roots of our own violence in our hearts.

    i.e. they could forego their ‘right to bear arms’ in the name of following a rendering of the Sermon on the Mount.

    However, it seems to me that we, as Christians, too often want to engage government in the process of limiting guns (or in a host of other issues). And, THAT, is where we seem to get into difficulties.

    I think many of us fail to see that the argument is not ultimately about guns but about the role and place of government in people’s lives. In addition, we too often fail to see the legal control of the tools of violence will do nothing to stem the violence in people’s hearts. As a result, we end up placing too much faith in law and regulation. We give ourselves a false sense of security.

    As a result, we end up being mere reflections of the larger social/cultural argument.

    I want to embrace the Kingdom as fully as I know how but I also keep in mind that when you sit down to eat with the devil you often learn that he has a very long fork.

  • http://www.theunearthedproject.com brandon andress

    Jim and John… i believe the points you both bring up are incredibly valid for the conflict many American Christians feel when confronted with Kingdom principles and ethics. Many are left trying to reconcile a Christianity that has, in many ways over the centuries, overlapped a more patriotic, constitutional Americanism than it has the Kingdom.

    To me, it seems as if the two are irreconcilable. Kingdom values, principles, and ethics always suprasede any and all inferior, man-made value-based systems, including the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Insofar as these inferior man-made value-based systems reach and strain to resemble God’s transcendent value system (the Kingdom) on earth… we celebrate it. But it is not a great achievement, or something that ought to be sought after or celebrated, for followers of Jesus, who have given their sole allegiance to him as Lord over their lives and who have taken on to pursue and extend God’s value system (the Kingdom) on earth, to begin ascribing to and following a man-made document espousing inferior or contradictory values than the Kingdom.

    Kingdom values, principles, and ethics trump anything and everything, including any American document, that is inferior to God’s value system, which was demonstrated in flesh and blood through Jesus. A piecemeal approach by combining parts of either is simply the beginning of another inferior, man-made document.

    Thanks for the post and the responses. I look forward to reading more.

    peace…

    Brandon

  • adam

    Are gun owners making the argument that the Kingdom of God will come through violence? If they are then perhaps this article would be spot on for addressing their contemporary violence and their anti-christian perspective. However, if gun owners are not making this argument, that the kingdom of God will come through violence, then this article completely misses the point and nature of the gun “debate”.

  • Wayne

    Remember more than one thing can be true at the same time. Are you going to stand by if someone enters your home to do harm? I will bet you will not. Lots of folks quote the Bible to support their case and spin it in a way that supports their side of the case. GUNS ARE NOT THE ISSUE. The evil hearts are the issue that have been corrupted by the things of this earth and the influence of the Enemy. My pastor here in Colorado Springs has to carry a gun at all times because he has death threats against him all the time because he is preaching the gospel. This is Colorado. Here in America. Is he to “disarm” and let whatever happens happen “for the sake of the gospel?” I believe not. Jesus did not come to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51) if you accept him and stand for righteousness. Again, guns are not the issue but only a tool and the heart will guide a person on how to use that tool. Let’s please look at the big picture. I believe Jesus wants us to be smart as well as listen to his leading.

  • Drew Strait

    Jim – I think you make a great point. I’ve seen other Christians reworking the ambiguous grammar of the Second Amendment to highlight its original intention of arming organized militias, etc. But the deeper issue for me is that the Second Amendment is often treated as if it has equal and/or superior authority to the teaching of Jesus on the issue of violence.

  • Cris

    @Adam

    Not necessarily, though I have heard some preach of an “end times” persecution of Christians in America, so we need guns to protect our own. In other words, collective paranoia.

    Also, some pro-gun less control and regulation advocates use Luke 22 as “proof” about Jesus’ ideas and teaching on the bearing of arms. The post is about the historical and literary context of Luke 22 to show that an interpretation that Jesus is pro-sword carry for protection (and thus, guns) misses the mark by a long shot, since the opposite seems to be indicated.

  • Drew Strait

    Adam, not sure where I said gun owners believe that. I am saying that gun owners are misusing Luke 22 to argue that Jesus armed his disciples. I do think, however, that one could argue that patriotism has led some Christians to see the military as a vehicle for advancing God’s kingdom. But that is the subject of another post!

  • Eric

    Thanks Scot. I have often wondered about this passage.

    Also lots of good questions in the comments. Without a lot of easy answers. The question about what to do if someone comes into your house to do violence I have been thinking about a lot also. Are we supposed to stand by and do nothing, probably not, but I also can’t say I should be armed and ready to kill either. I know the wwjd thing is kind of cheesy, but I have a hard time seeing Jesus killing an intruder, even in self defense, and if he wouldn’t, why are we so willing to?

  • adam

    It seems to me that while clarifying the unlawfulness of the gun toters exegesis, the post likewise moves beyond exegesis into application with an agenda.
    The conclusion reveals the method; “Jesus had to disarm the violent mentality of his generation—what would it look like for us to disarm ours? It is time for pastors to say “enough of this!” And maybe for some this means using our creativity to make a safe space for Christians to melt their excess guns into plowshares.”
    This suggests that Jesus disarmed his generation as an example for us to right here, right now, do the same? This reads our “gun problem” into the text and then seeks thereby to justify ‘disarmament” via the text. I am just saying, there is not a conversation to be had on gun control or violence and personal protection from this text. The redemptive historical events unique to Christ’s work do not provide either side of the debate with a way forward.
    This much should be clear to every one.
    The clarification of the post seems like justification only from the other “side” of the debate.

  • http://rdhudgens.blogspot.com Ric Hudgens

    An opinion piece in today’s NYTimes raises a question about the value, use, and necessity of the Constitution: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/opinion/lets-give-up-on-the-constitution.html

  • TJJ

    No one I know is arguing the position that the kingdom of God will/should come through violence. A Christian having a couple fund in their home for sport and or protection has nothing to do with bringing the Kingdom of God.

  • Ken

    I would also be in favor of a discussion regarding arms that pulls in the relevance of the consitution that we are under as citizens with the Kingdom of Christ.

    Wade Burleson wrote some thoughts that brought to light the fact that in the past, America utilized the people, the public, with their arms, to see to it that criminals payed back their victims (not the state, ie. prison); and if the criminal failed to make good on restitution, they would become an outlaw, in which the people would utilize their arms (as an arm of the gov’t…by the people, for the people etc.). He defined ‘natural law’ as the underlying principle. The result is that prisons weren’t overflowing with criminals and the public was responsible to govern them.

    See it here: http://www.wadeburleson.org/2012/12/gun-control-and-tragedy-at-sandy-hook.html

    So the question, in my mind, extends beyond merely (and neatly) separating kingdom citizens (no violence or aggression in any situation) and gov’t (right to bear and use the sword), but rather involves a constitution and principle that extends that authority (from a gov’t) to it’s people in certain situations. Sort of a mixing of the pot, so to speak.

  • http://www.kingdomseeking.com K. Rex Butts

    I really appreciate this post. It exegetically undercuts the argumentative way Luke 22:36 is so often used as a proof-text for. However, posting a link to this post on my Facebook wall drew the ire of a few people.

  • Drew Strait

    Adam, As indicated in the first few paragraphs of my post, there is no question that it has an agenda: namely, to recognize that (a) we’ve got a violence/gun problem; and (b) you can’t use Luke 22 to argue for personal armament. I am not expecting the NRA to read this and approve; it is written for the church. We are living in the most violent country in the developed world — how do Jesus’ words and actions in Luke 22 not speak to Christians in our nation? I am not convinced that what Jesus had to say about violence is “unique” to his generation.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Helpful. Thanks, Drew. I’m on board on the pacifist Christian end of things, but I’m not sure I’m on board with thinking that the church is to actively pursue a political agenda to decrease the number of guns in America. But if the church really lived out the ethic you present here, much of the power of the gun lobby, it seems, would decrease. At any rate, thanks again.

  • Ty

    Is there any evidence that Jesus’s use of “sword” in Luke 22 is referring to the Word of God? Are Paul’s and John’s uses of “sword” in that way evidence of a latter interpretation by the disciples to that end?

  • adam

    Drew,

    Again, I cannot see how it is not clear to each that one cannot use Luke 22 for justifying gun totting, neither can it be used to promote disarmament. Thus, the post in general does not “clarify” or really contribute to the advancement of defining the “church’s role” in the debate. There is no directive for the pastor/shepherd here in order that he may, by this text, say “enough is enough” to guns/violence.
    Again, in a re-read of my previous comments, Christ is not speaking about the Christian response to generic “violence” within his own or subsequent generations. The passion events are not general musings about “violence” which we are to regard as normative directives regarding all violent acts, peoples, or catastrophes. Neither does it provide a “call to the church” for activism against or for gun control.
    The agenda brought to the text cannot be upheld by the text, the burden is too great.

  • MikeW

    Adam, wouldn’t you agree that the rest of the NT supports using the passion narratives and the passion of Christ itself as a model for Christian living, especially Xian living in response to violence and suffering? Why would this passage be any different?

  • MikeW

    Drew, would say the the “command” to buy a sword means, prepare yourselves for a time when you will no longer be welcomed, but instead be attacked violently – or something to that end?

    And, does Fitzmeyer cite evidence that the phrase Jesus uses (allegedly meaning “that’s enough!”) means that in other contemporary texts?

  • adam

    Mike
    I appreciate the broadening of the scope a bit. I would say, “yes” and “no” in response to using, “the passion of Christ itself as a model for Christian living, especially Xian living in response to violence and suffering?”
    I would say “yes” that the NT speaks of the Christian life being lived out by the Spirit flowing from the work of Christ and modeled after the work of Christ. So, yes. But also No. In that, the NT does not singularly unite every situation or potential for violence and the Christians response to that difficulty or violence to the passion of Christ as the God honoring responsive choice.
    I guess I’m saying, that there are other roles within which the Christian finds himself serving which may require meeting force with force in a “God-honoring” act. Consider the roles of Father, Husband, and perhaps for some even Good Samaritan (loving neighbor).
    Within the rightful stewardship over which God has entrusted may require protection from harm/danger. In this case, I would submit that the passion is not the only, or even the primary, directive for engagement as many pacifist would.
    This is my point. This discussion goes far beyond and in many ways outside of Luke 22 altogether.

  • Drew Strait

    @Ty – there is no evidence to my knowledge that Jesus is talking about the word of God here. The sword protruding from Jesus’ mouth in Revelation 19 may refer to the word of God (which creates an interesting image of Jesus defeating the enemies of God by the sword of his word rather than a literal sword).

    @Adam – in my mind, the church’s role in the gun debate is to imitate Jesus. If Luke 22 isn’t of value for shaping our thinking on this issue then what do we do with the Sermon on the Mount or the Apostles’ response to persecution in Acts? What about the call to “patient endurance” in Revelation? All of these texts point toward an ethic of non-violence. Paul certainly thought the death of Jesus was significant for shaping how Christians conduct themselves; I am especially thinking of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:1-11. My hope is that we can find creative ways to empower the church to imitate Jesus’ strategy of resisting evil by taking up the cross (in contrast to the popular idea of personal and national armament).

    @Mike – yes, Jesus is using hyperbole to prepare the disciples for the coming hostility during/after his arrest. Your sense of “prepare yourselves for a time when you will no longer be welcomed, but instead be attacked violently” is spot on. When one goes on to read Luke’s second volume, it becomes clear that the apostles do, in fact, meet hostility – especially in Philippi, etc. (Acts 16). Fitzmyer interprets the idiom “that’s enough!” mostly based on context and sensibility. For more on this issue check out the excerpt from Ben Witherington and Amy-Jill Levine’s forthcoming Luke commentary here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2011/01/20/enough-of-the-sword-play-luke-22-38/.

  • Dann in Ohio

    So here is a simple question… considering both the Biblical, cultural, and historical context of Christ’s words at the time… what was the purpose of the sword they were supposed obtain by selling their cloaks, if not for self-defense? Defending against animals, but not people? Slicing bread? No, seriously… what was the purpose of the sword in that context? Either having it or not having it?


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